When the snow starts coming down hard on Mozart Street, my mother, who has lived in West Rogers Park (aka West Ridge) for more than 50 years, can usually rely on her neighbors to help her out without even having to ask. Ari, one door to the south, shovels the snow. Or Benji, who lives with his family one door north, does the job. When my mother’s windshield wipers snapped in the cold, Mr. Seruya across the street replaced them
But today is Saturday, and though there’s about a foot of snow on the ground over a thick layer of ice, it’s shabbos, so none of my mother’s Orthodox neighbors will be able to shovel her car out. Since I’m in town visiting, I’ve come over to help. When I was little this was one of my favorite winter activities—I loved not only the visceral pleasure of scraping out a neat path and building mountains of snow in the yard but also the camaraderie that blizzards always brought to our neighborhood.
As I work, men in black hats and overcoats walk briskly between home and shul, using the street because the sidewalks are too snowy for their dress shoes. Children, down coats over their suits and dresses, kick their way through the white fluff, but this isn’t really a day for playing. The only neighbor I recognize, Mr. Nathan from a few doors down, cracks wise as he walks quickly past me. “How much’ll you pay me to shovel my own walk?” he asks.
At the end of a block, a man with a heavy-duty snowblower begins to clear the sidewalk in front of a house where he does odd jobs, but the owner of the house emerges without a coat. Wearing a white shirt, black pants and shoes, and a yarmulke and tsitsit, he waves away the workman.
“Go around, go around, no shoveling today, go around!” he shouts.
“I just wanted to do you a favor,” the guy replies.
“Not today,” says the home owner, “If you wanna do me a favor, do it after 6 PM.”
Otherwise the block is quiet. Most of the sidewalk and just about all the cars will remain icy and white until sundown. The snow is still falling, and though I’ve almost finished, a thin, dusty layer is covering the parts I’ve shoveled. I decide to leave the rest for the morning.
It’s 30 years ago nearly to the day that the great blizzard of 1979 fell on Chicago, helping to end the political career of Michael Bilandic, whose anemic response to the disaster led to the election of Jane Byrne. Her administration didn’t do a much better job of clearing snow than Bilandic’s had, or Richard J. Daley’s had before that. Some members of my family were suspicious of Harold Washington when he was elected, but when the first blizzard of his administration came and they saw city snow plows on their street for the first time in their lives, they were converted.
In 1979 I was in seventh grade, and the snowdrifts were so deep the front steps of houses became invisible and cars were buried headlight deep. Our neighbors grew weary of waiting for plows we knew would never come. Mrs. Fingerhut called a private tow truck company and went door-to-door asking each household to chip in $20. The truck plowed the middle of Mozart, then towed each car to the middle of the street as more than a dozen of us got to work, shoveling out parking spaces like a road gang—digging, heaving, throwing; digging, heaving, throwing. Everyone shoveled—Rabbi Small and the rebbetsen, the Fingerhuts, the Nathans, the Ellises, the Friedmans. Also the Irish Lady and the Italians and the policeman—my family tended to identify the Jewish families by surname and the Gentiles by ethnicity or occupation. One neighbor brought out cups and thermoses of coffee and hot cocoa.
Even Joe Small across the street got into the shoveling act, though his wife, Gert, worried about his health. “Come inside, Joe,” she kept shouting. “Later you’ll do more.”
By the end of the day, the asphalt was nearly clear again, save for one spot occupied by a boxy, light-blue Dodge. It belonged to an elderly couple who hadn’t wanted to pay the $20. Their house was set farther back from the street than most; we rarely saw them and we didn’t know their names. Conversation buzzed—what to do about that car and that parking space? Maybe they couldn’t afford the money, some said. Maybe they were sick.
We decided to tow out their car and shovel their space and collectively pay their share. But as we set to it, the woman ran out of her house waving a $20 bill. She was coatless and wore a babushka, and she kept apologizing. She introduced herself to everyone, shook their hands, thanked them, and and said she was sorry some more. After that we knew them a little and they felt like neighbors.
On Sunday morning Mozart Street has come alive. At the corner the workman is plowing and no one is telling him to stop. Next door to my mother, Ari is shoveling his walk, and his father, the rabbi who lives around the corner, sees me with a shovel and quips, “So, you’re back and you’re starting a snow-shoveling business?” Mr. Nathan, his coat open as he shovels around his car, makes a joke about all the lawn chairs neighbors have put out to protect their spaces—it looks like the Gold Rush, he says, prospectors staking their claims. I’ve come to finish shoveling, but the snow is already gone from my mother’s sidewalk and her car has been scraped clean, too. Heading to the car to see if it will start I spot Mr. Seruya, who lives across the street in the house where Joe Small used to live. He’s working on his sidewalk. When he sees me he stops.
“I cleaned off your mother’s car last night,” he says with a smile. “We did the whole sidewalk too.”
I thank him, but he waves me off.
“Nah,” he says. “That’s just what we do for each other around here.”
I start the car and while it warms up I hop out to brush away a little snow that remains on its windshield. As I do, I see Mr. Friedman beginning to shovel out his car. He was new to the street when the blizzard of 1979 fell. Today he’s working with one hand on a shovel, the other on a cane. When he needs both hands, he hangs the handle of the cane on his jacket pocket. I ask if I can help, but he shakes his head—the snow isn’t bad, he says.
I ask Mr. Friedman if he remembers the blizzard of 1979, when all the neighbors pitched in.
“Yeah, but that wasn’t the worst one,” he says. “You should have seen 1978 when we were living on Washtenaw. Now that one was really something.”v